“An Atlas of the Difficult World” is a long poem divided into thirteen sections or short poems that relate experiences and observations. The sections are of varying length and are identified only by roman numerals, except for the seventh and the final ones, parenthetically titled “(The Dream-Site)” and “(Dedications),” respectively. Although in the poem the persona, or poetic voice, is often an assumed identity, Adrienne Rich’s poetic journey is enriched by personal images and observations. In this, her thirteenth volume of poetry, Rich provides readers with a mural that does not begin or end with this poem but connects with previous works dating back to 1951, when her first collection, A Change of World, was published.
As denoted by the term “atlas,” the series of poems describes a collection of American scenes that are bound together. Starting in California’s Salinas Valley, “THE SALAD BOWL OF THE WORLD,” Rich characterizes the place not only by location but also by the people who live and work in the “agribusiness empires.”
Throughout the poem, the people she describes are not famous but are always recognizable. They are, in a sense, the landscape of the American journey, which, as the title implies, is part of a difficult world. In the second section Rich addresses the central focus of the poem, looking at “our country” as a whole and alluding to social and economic conditions in the United States. The section ends with an imagined dialogue with a reader: “I promised to show you a map you say but this is a mural.” Rich responds to the hypothetical comment by replying that such distinctions are not important: “where do we see it from is the question.”
In section III Rich relates experiences and memories in the East as she sits “at this table in Vermont.” She describes past summers with her husband and children, which then connect with her own childhood. The image of her father, a Jew whose motto was “Without labor, no sweetness,” illustrates the continuity of existence that the poet conveys in every section of the poem; it also allows Rich to comment that she now knows that “not all labor ends in sweetness.” Next, in section IV, she mentions the girasole plant (a type of sunflower), which “laces the roadsides from Vermont to California,” the implied cross-country trip providing a desperate view of a countryside in decay, in need of repair. In California (section V) she takes the reader to San Francisco and its contrasting images of splendor and human waste—from views of the Palace of Fine Arts to San Quentin, Alcatraz, and “places where life is cheap poor quick unmonumented.” From the start she is the reader’s tour guide, deciding the itinerary and providing the background needed to appreciate the scenes. In section VI, set in nineteenth century Ireland and America, poetry becomes the necessary tool for expressing the nature of the human condition: “poetry of cursing and silence,” “of I.R.A.-talk, kitchen-talk, dream-talk.” Section VII, “(The Dream-Site),” is about New York City, where Rich once lived, and it conveys a sense of why she had to leave the East.
Sections IX and X depict scenes of loneliness and isolation. Citing the Mohave Desert and the Grand Canyon, the poems describe human loneliness as immense and infertile. In section X she includes excerpts from a book entitled Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (1970). Soledad, a California prison located near Monterey, is an artificial structure, unlike the Mohave Desert and Grand Canyon, but it still signifies through its cavelike structure the loneliness that the poet sees carved into the human landscape of the country.
In section XI the people of Monterey have gone through several natural disasters, including earthquakes and a devastating drought. Analogous to these natural holocausts is war. Rich meditates on what it means to love one’s country, to be a citizen, to be a patriot....
(The entire section is 2,450 words.)